Following our excursions in the jungle, Henry, William and I headed East towards the centre of Laos and the infamous party city of Vang Vieng. Outside the city lies plenty of beautiful scenery with rows of rice paddies guarded by endless steep green hills and mountains, where cows and buffalos can live peacefully away from the debauchery. Inside the city is a different story. The main streets are lined with food stalls, bars and the colourful characters who stumble between the various establishments. Most of those who choose to work and live there wear large chains around their necks made up of beer can rings (the longer you’ve been there, the bigger the chain… and the greater the drinking problem).
On the first evening, when walking down the street I felt a sharp pain in my hand. Then I noticed a girl cowering behind a shop advertisement board with a BB pellet gun in her hand. “Got you back, Joe!” she shouted, before dashing away into the darkness, laughing manically whilst she ran. I don’t know who “Joe” is, but I hoped not to get caught looking like him again in front of a girl with a gun.
Ultimately, Vang Vieng is really famous for one thing. Tubing. You rent a large rubber ring (or more accurately the inner tube of a large car tyre), and float down the Nam Song river, stopping off at various bars along the way. The activity became infamous amongst backpackers in Asia about 10 years ago and made the city a regular stop in a trip through Laos. Unfortunately the intense drinking would frequently lead to accidents in the river, causing dozens of backpackers to have died each year as a result. This has lead to restrictions being placed on the number of bars open each day, so everyone was slightly more sober. It was still a good day, with everyone merrily floating down the river with beers in hand, hoping the rain gods were busy that afternoon.
After 3 hazy nights in Vang Vieng, it was time to leave the beaten track and head north through the remote towns of Laos and towards Vietnam. One of the best parts of travelling are the friends you make, and the sad consequence is having to say goodbye when you must part ways. Henry and William were coming to the end of their respective trips, and booked a flight to Vietnam to finish their adventures. I was to take the slower scenic route along the bumpy roads before boating up the Nam Ou river to the border. Henry and William, who I had met on the islands of Thailand, had our friendships cemented over a week in a hospital on Koh Phangan and then built on through our travels northwards. They waved my tuk tuk away from our hostel that cloudy morning as I headed towards the bus station. The rain started to fall as I realised it was time to continue my journey alone again.
Buses in Laos vary dramatically; from local coaches, to luxury sleeper buses, to the infamous “shared bed sleeper” (where you are given a double bed with another individual for the journey). Unfortunately these double beds were built for 5 foot something Laotian, and therefore were about 5’6″ long and 4’0″ wide… cosy. I had to endure one of these buses on the way to Luang Prabang, where myself and a tall British gap year enthusiast crammed ourselves in for 12 hours. The only thing to do was to take some Valium, close your eyes, and hope the journey wasn’t too rocky…
Fortunately my first bus heading north was quite different. I was the only non-Laotian on the bus, which creeped through all the mountain towns, dropping off the passengers at their respective stops. At the front of the bus sat a television, where the entertainment for that particular trip was a collection of silent Charlie Chaplin films with Thai speech dubbed over the top. The films were funny by themselves, but were somehow made hilarious by the collective laughter of everyone else on the bus who roared with every slapstick moment. Definitely the quickest 5 hours in a bus I’ve experienced.
After a quick layover in Luang Prabang, I jumped on a minibus towards Nong Khiaw. The town was nestled between the mountains, and overlooking the murky river Nam Ou below. Mountains in northern Laos aren’t like gentle climbs of other South-East Asian ranges. Jagged cuts of rock overlap each other, bustling for room in the cramped landscape. Trees sit in the slopes where possible, separated by vertical walls of rock which have been battered by the turbulent Laotian weather. The river carved its way through the surrounding environment, occupied by a few fish and their counterpart fishermen.
On arrival, I met two dutch backpackers (Tomas and Amber), along with a fellow Londoner called Randa. In the more remote areas of Laos, you can’t book ahead, so you would simply arrive and check into a guesthouse or hostel. When exploring the town, a sudden downpour diverted us towards the nearest possible accommodation, which was a cosy hostel run by a New Zealander called Harps. The floors were paved with cushions where backpackers slept, read and relaxed. It was a definite stroke of luck to have found a place to meet others, chill out and find guidance for the next steps of the journey.
Harps himself was a funny character, where there was always a bottle of Lao Lao (local rice whisky) nearby, and he would spend most of the day barking at the tradesmen working at the hostel. He returned home one evening brandishing wounds from a minor motorbike accident, exclaiming “Who puts metal pipes on the road these days?! Such a freak accident… I hadn’t drunk that much…”
Rain was to expected at this stage of the year, but it didnt stop us from climbing to the famous Nong Khiaw viewpoint, which sat at 4500ft, and boasted a 360 degree view of the surroundings. After a sticky hour long climb, the 4 of us ascended to the peak where we sat in awe of our surroundings. Clouds floated at our level and the air would occasionally become cooler and thicker as they passed through us.
After a couple of nights enjoying the stunning environment and relative comfort of Nong Khiaw, Randa and I took a boat to the next stop along the river, Muang Ngoy. After an hour on the boat, we arrived at the small pier and greeted by various locals offering their guesthouses. On the river front, we managed to find a private bungalow for 30,000 kip per night (£2.50). A hammock hung invitingly outside our front door, accompanied by mango trees and a view of the river and mountains opposite.
Away from the buzz and distractions of any major city, Muang Ngoy sat peacefully alone with only a few longboats approaching each day. That afternoon, we ventured towards the main attraction of the area, the Tham Kang cave. Kazu, a soft natured Japanese man who was staying in the village for six months, spoke to us and recommended we bring swimwear so that we may explore the underwater tunnels connecting the caves.
After a 45 minute walk along the rice paddies, we found the entrance and wandered in. At first we were underwhelmed by the apparent small entrance, although upon further inspection we found paths inwards and into an underwater maze. Now in pitch black, and joined only by our torches, we tentatively explored the depths. The water was refreshingly cool and completely clear, with small fish somehow managing to make a life here. We drifted through, clambering up muddy slopes and discovering the pathways to further open spaces. We stayed for an hour or so, absorbing the tranquility with no one else to spoil the silence.
The following day was not a particularly active one. Slouching in our hammocks (I had borrowed one from the bungalow next door), we stopped and let the world pass by. This leg of my trip felt like a week of healing. All of the muscle aches, coughs and remainders of lingering hangovers disappeared. Even from the view of our bungalow, we were joined by an amazing selection of wildlife. Large toads, geckos, and scorpions strolled by at an easy Laos pace, and at least a dozen breads of multicoloured butterflies and moths floated by throughout the day. I only brought 250,000 kip (£20) and a few dollars with me to Muang Ngoy, as I only expected to stay a night. I wish I had brought more so that I may stay longer, but unfortunately there’s no ATM around here to help me extend my visit. I could spend a lifetime here swaying peacefully in my hammock.
During the evenings, we went to various small restaurants and met with locals. Stories of unexploded bombs and mines in the surrounding area were frequently told, as a century shrouded with war was still strongly marked in their minds. However, once you passed the stern exterior of the Laos people, there was a friendly face that would always make you smile. Of course, a few glasses of Lao Lao rice whisky would make anyone friendly, as you would be hastily carried towards a spiritual place, fondly known by all as “Lao Lao land”.
Seen by many as a stopping point between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has a remarkable charm of its own with unparalleled natural beauty. I was sad to not be visiting the south of the country, which held a different landscape, whilst still holding the marks of the Vietnam War (amongst other wars). However, it was time to leave. The final leg of the journey would be a boat northwards towards a border town of Muang Khai before heading East into Vietnam. It was good night Laos and good morning Vietnam!